YouthZone column: Changes in youth behavior could signal psychological trauma

Courtney Dunn
For YouthZone

No one likes to be told their child may be exhibiting behaviors that result from psychological trauma. These are hard topics of discussion, but depression, stress and anxiety drastically affect a large number of our youth.

YouthZone saw an increased need for therapy and substance intervention in 2020 when youth and parents experienced stress and psychological trauma as a result of COVID-19, school closures, loss of connection with friends, social unrest and summer fires. Youth specialists, parenting experts and trauma therapists at YouthZone were able to help youth and families by talking them through the stress and trauma.

Trauma results from people experiencing an event that threatens their life or their physical or emotional well-being. Witnessing an event happen to another person can also trigger trauma. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 60 percent of U.S. youth younger than 17 have been exposed to crime, violence or abuse, either directly or indirectly.

A wide array of traumatic experiences affects our youth, and every person reacts to trauma differently. What might seem like a trivial event to one adolescent may have an enormous impact on another individual’s sense of self-worth, emotional stability and behaviors.

Adults in our community need to stay curious and empathetic to traumatically-impacted youth. All people, and particularly young people, communicate through their behaviors, especially when they cannot find the words to express themselves.

Trauma disguises itself in behaviors like aggression, poor school performance, substance use, self-harm, isolation, fluctuations in attitude, delinquent behavior, poor self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts or actions. These behaviors don’t automatically indicate stress from a traumatic event, but any change in behavior should be explored because there is likely something at the root of it to be addressed.

It is definitely hard to watch disturbing displays of behavior. Often, our first response is to try to stop the behavior with punishment or consequences. This reaction usually comes from a place of fear and frustration, because we want our kids to be OK. We want them to make good choices and to live healthy, productive lives.

I challenge the adults in this community to take a different approach when they see unacceptable behavior. Try not to focus on the behavior itself, but chase the “why.” Strive to find out why a young person is acting the way they are. What is their behavior trying to tell us? Once we find out the why, we can help facilitate emotional and physical safety and healthy connection for our youth. This is where we will begin to see a positive behavioral shift.

Discovering the root cause of challenging behaviors or helping a child cope with a traumatic event can begin with a call to YouthZone at 970-945-9300.

Courtney Dunn is a therapist and specializes in trauma and youth. She obtained her BS in Human Services from the University of Northern Colorado and a Masters of Social Work from Denver University.

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